When you were first given instruction to play your instrument, what was the first thing you remember learning? How to hold it? What keys/ valves to press? How to make a sound?
What about reading the notes? Every Good Boy Deserves Football? All Cows Eat Grass?
5 Lines, 4 spaces. Here's a treble clef / here's a bass clef....
What about rhythm?
In my time as a music educator, I think the concept people really struggle with is rhythm. So often a student will say in a lesson: "I can't remember how it goes"... and what they mean is, "I can't read the rhythm". Why is that?
Rhythm involves a number of abstract elements.
In the UK we call our rhythm values the traditional names: Semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver etc. These don't give much away about how to play them. In the US, the naming of "whole note", "half note", "quarter note" etc, goes much further to give the learner a sense of how note values fit into the rhythmic scheme of music. But even then, knowing the theory and applying it are very different notions.
Is it a numbers game?
The relationship between maths and music is not disputed, but does that mean if you're not a strong mathematician, you will struggle to read music? I don't think so.
Music is pattern-based, and recognizing that can make a huge difference to sight-reading.
It is also physical. "Feeling the beat"and how rhythm relates to it, is vital to being able to play what is on the page.
Being so physical, is it that we lack adequate coordination when it comes to accurately interpreting and playing rhythm? If that is the case, we need to start back at the basics and develop reading and playing and movment skills from the ground up.
I recently ran some online lessons for my Avanti! band members all about rhythm; and for those adult learners (with the risk of being patronising), we started at the beginning:
These are called "French Time-Names" and I've been using them to identify and teach rhythm for many years.
(I borrowed this image from the following blog. It examines a number of rhythmic counting systems and is an interesting read: https://makemomentsmatter.org/classroom-ideas/rhythm-syllable-systems-what-to-use-and-why/ )
Giving rhythm names, as such, helps with the pattern identification. You can read the rhythm almost like a sentence. Saying the rhythm while keeping a beat ups the difficulty, but only incrementally, and is good practice to develop coordination.
You could go on reading with time names, and that would work fine, until you came to really syncopated rhythms. It is then that you need to know where the beat sits with the rhythm before you. So I have taught "saying the numbers" of the rhythm alongside the time names with even my more beginner students.
If you are an adult learner, this is the skill I'd encourage you to develop. (Note in the examples below, the '+' is read as 'and').
1 2 3 4
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
1 2 3 + 4
1 2 + 3 4
1 2 e + a 3 4
1 e + a 2 + 3 + 4
(I found these rhythm cards here (numbers added by me): https://www.bristolplaysmusic.org/teach/music-curriculum-bristol/curriculum/rhythm-cards/ )
Try tapping these rhythms out, saying the time-names and the numbers. Then try tapping the beat and saying the rhythms with the time-names and the numbers. If you can master this, you've built the foundations to reading more complex, syncopated rhythms.
Lockdown has afforded us the opportunity to focus on these aspects of music learning and playing. Our more experienced Tutti! players have been looking at rhythm also (namely triplets), in the context of their repertoire. These kinds of learning sessions just wouldn't be considered in a regular rehearsal schedule.
As a band, we are considering ways to engage online after the summer (bands are still restricted regarding rehearsals), and I will be looking at leading workshops on rhythm (among other areas of music learning and playing). Get in touch if you'd like more info.